Jürgen Klauke is one of the key figures in German contemporary art history. Since the 1970s, the artist has pioneered photography as a tool to question and investigate gender and identity questions. In unyielding ways, his own body is used as a central medium of expression for his elaborate theatrically staged photographs. The figures in these scenes seem frozen and do not refer to themselves; they have left the sphere of all subjective moods to fill a more objective one. Using a provocative aesthetic, these tableaux explore eroticism and transvestite issues, as part of a larger interest in emotionality and intellect as instruments of analysis, representation and interpretation of identity and gender.
In Selfperformance, a tableau composed of 13 different elements from 1972/73, Klauke becomes the medium of transvestite transformation. In this work, the artist plays with different prosthetic elements, grows breasts, enacts the role of a bride and finally completes the sex change by exhibiting a vagina. Transformer (1973) is an icon within this search.
Another privileged subject matter in Klauke’s ouevre is his exploration of the schizophrenic artificial division between private and public roles. Verschleierung (1973) is a vehement example of this representation of the struggle between individualization and society’s impositions. This sketch of the paradoxical, the bizarre, and the excessive addresses the unconscious of the viewer himself. This playfulness is especially evident in Dr. Mueller, produced in 1977. The underlying yet increasing violence reaches a peak in his 1977 tableau Konfrontation. This idea of struggle, aggression and transformation throughout time translates also very well in his tableau Rein-Raus from 1976. In this work a business man wearing female lingerie is attacked by his own suppressed desires and changes gender by the end of the process. These carefully constructed photographs combine elements of personal experience with ritualized action in sequences which address both the sociological and psychoanalytical structures which command our reality.
Thus, the booth presentation brings forth a feeling of performance and cinematography, playing with the multiplication of photos and the enactments they depict. Very few artists have a conceptual approach that can be compared with Klaukes artistic concept. The use of series has been long pursued since the first Happenings and Fluxus activities, but its main function here is to objectify one’s own existence in reality, to define perception and locate the self in space and time. In this way, Klauke makes a pioneering contribution to the approach of the medium of photography known as staged photography, and succeeds in exploring the problem of identity and in focusing on basic questions of the existential and social reality. It has been pointed out that Klauke is one of the few artists who are able to make the human condition his theme without falling into an expressive gesture of activism, still his most important contribution lies in his vigorous search into the question of gender and identity.
„Jürgen Klauke“, Text by Klaus Honnef in Faltblatt: Deutsche Bank Köln
He is one of the key figures in contemporary art. He has invented much of what has long been seen as established repertoire and strongly influenced the art of the past 30 years. His work develops an action which triggers both fascination and irritation, constantly oscillating between the poles of attraction and repulsion. As one of the first, Jürgen Klauke uses photography for artistic expression. With single-minded consistency he plumbed the possibilities and limitations, as comprehensive and multifaceted like no other, and opened up an entirely new field of art. He has raised the question of gender more vigorously than others, and thereby worsened the problem of identity with sometimes provocative pictures to the extreme. At the same time as Robert Morris and Bruce Nauman and even before Cindy Sherman, he used the human body as a direct expression and carrier of his artistic ideas and used it as an object and vehicle for his art. Quite exceptionally, he also opened methods and modes of representation, both by introducing narrative patterns of film and sequences, and in the tableaux especially. These consist of individual, separate images, which are nevertheless related in form and content and can be “read” in all possible directions. Finally, he also discovered the large photo format, and realized his artistic ideas into big-screen series, when most other artists were still moving within the usual range of photographic practice. Nonetheless, his career has always been accompanied by upheavals and redefinitions never adjusting to the level of expectations of mainstream art – his work always positioned it-self diagonally to the current art trends.
The former works, because they deliberately violated social taboos and operated with aggressive, subversive and disturbing agents, as well as the more recent works tap into the contemporary art high standards and go against the mainstream. His oeuvre appears in the commercialized art world like an erratic block, as stubborn and bulky, and thereby vibrant, and full of sensual power. A force that pulls the viewer’s image cycles involuntarily under its spell. Accordingly, it is difficult to characterize an artist as Jürgen Klauke using the usual terminology of art criticism. His images and image sequences do not fit into familiar categories, they blow up the familiar clichés, and because he is an innovative artist, his work requires careful analysis. The problem begins with the manufacturing process. Although he also draws and paints, he is not a painter – and he is certainly not a photographer.
Nevertheless, the most important part of his artistic work consists of photography. He is the one who comes up with the visuals, designs and realizes, then he is the director of the visual realization of his concept and at the end too often, at least until recently, the actor in the staging. In view of his work, one could compare him with one of the great film directors, such as Buster Keaton for instance, Claude Chabrol or David Lynch. Even before the crew goes to the studio to lend his artistic vision to shape, a complex casting is necessary. And another thing is as in film: the central figure, which the artist embodies, and which first occurred in sometimes exotic and cute clothes and since the second half of the 70s in the formal, black business suit, which has something to do with him, but is not identical with the person of Jürgen Klauke. One could misunderstand his images completely, if you summed it up as a kind of self portrait, which is somehow partly true for his older series and sequences. In fact, it is more a societal image, a condensed reflection of others, including their viewers: to be precise, it is about images of social and psychological syndromes and distortions, sometimes grotesquely exaggerated or ironic accentuated. Jürgen Klauke makes present in his art: the short circuits and failures in human communication, the widespread loss of meaning in life, the numbing emptiness and boredom of a unfilled life, not to mention the suggestive threats to mental and physical identity by the gentle sway of the media and the progressive mechanization of all realms of life, from which the territory of the human body is not excluded. When he ironically breaks this agenda, he documents more the despair than the distance and frees the viewer of his images, no liberating laughter, but one of sudden insight and self-knowledge: in the “others” in Jürgen Klauke’s work we meet ourselves.